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October 24th, 2014

Insight

Swimming in a sea turning red

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published August 12, 2014

Swimming in a sea turning red

Nobody reckons that election returns from Hawaii, the land of the lotus-eaters stuck thousands of miles off the California coast in the vast reaches of the Pacific, have much to say about national political trends. You might as well ask the cat. Nevertheless, disappointment and disgust with the established order has reached across partisan waves.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, running for his second term with endorsements by President Obama and establishment Democrats, was not just defeated in the Saturday party primary, but gobsmacked. Routed. Vanquished. Humiliated. He lost to a state senator by 35 points. Who knew there were that many points out there?

Brian Schatz, the incumbent U.S. senator who was appointed by the governor to succeed the late Daniel Inouye in 2012, was locked in another race so close that the election can't be decided until voters in a remote village isolated by Tropical Storm Iselle get to the polls that were kept open to enable them to cast a vote.

Voters are getting uppity everywhere, first in Virginia, where they cashiered the Republican majority leader, then in Mississippi where Democrats had to be called in to help an aging Republican establishment duffer squeak through a run-off. Now this remarkable result in Hawaii.

Mr. Abercrombie is unpopular — hugely, obviously — because he is regarded as confrontational, arrogant and eager to raise taxes, just what voters expect from many establishment candidates of both parties. The governor is acting like a true Democrat in what is shaping up, maybe, to be a very Republican year.

If you're a Democratic candidate, you've got to act like a Republican to survive in the autumn of '14. Democrats are running for cover nearly everywhere. Any bit of camouflage is highly prized. "It's a different kind of electorate," Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco pollster, tells a survey for Politico, the political daily. "If you're running as a Democrat in a non-presidential year, you want to strike a more moderate tone." There will be time enough later to eat your words, quietly and out of sight in the kitchen if possible, and resume a career as a big spender.

This calls for not-so-discreet cross-dressing. Democrats are trying out campaign ads as unfamiliar as lace on a pair of boxers, demanding balanced budgets, tax cuts and promising stewardship of the people's money. Democratic congressional candidates are playing conservative in districts won comfortably two years ago by Barack Obama.

Their hearts are still with daddy but they can read, and with the president's disappearing popularity, his approval ratings are headed into deep Jimmy Carter land. Loyalty and friendship are nice, but business is business.

Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, is running for Congress in a true-blue district Mr. Obama carried not once but twice. This year Mr. Romanoff is not the usual free-spending Democrat who walks two inches off the ground to keep his head in the clouds. He's boasting that he was the sober-sided champion of a balanced state budget. "It's really pretty simple," he says. "You don't buy things you can't pay for."

In one television commercial he displays a chart with jagged red lines representing the nation's soaring national debt. It looks a lot like one of the graphs drawn by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, to sell a root-canal budget. His campaign says the resemblance is only a coincidence. (Sure it is.)

Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat who represents a district in southern Arizona, has discovered the bleeding border the Republicans have been shouting about. Democrats rarely say much about getting tough on illegal immigration, but Mr. Barber's ads feature a shot of a real, live Border Patrol car. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the right video might be worth a thousand votes.

Patrick Henry Hays was known as plain Pat Hays when he was the mayor of North Little Rock. He bought a surplus submarine and a tug boat to dock on the Arkansas River, ready to defend the capital if the Yankees return, but he's talking economics this time, tourists be darned. He uses Paul Ryan's graphics in his television ads, too.

"I approve this message because it's simple," he says. "You cut waste, you pay your bills, and you do everything in your power to create job. That's what we need in Congress."

But to get there, you have to learn to swim in a sea that looks to be turning deep red in a lot of unusual places. Anything to stay afloat.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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